Words and Wounds: Reflections from Britain Yearly Meeting

Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) has discerned that now is the time to begin revising our book of discipline, the publication that captures our understanding of Quaker principles and practices. This gathering of Friends in London was extremely well planned, with loving servant-leadership demonstrated by the Clerks. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the deeply impressive work of the Revision Preparation Group (RPG), who brought their recommendations to BYM, and prepared the whole Yearly Meeting so well for this discernment. I personally found it a very emotional weekend, having a strong sense of my own place within the Quaker family. My involvement has given rise to a whole host of thoughts, and I’m going to try and piece them together in this post.

We need our theological gifts

I welcomed the decision to revise our book of discipline with a sense of awe – with both excitement and fear. We have an adventure set before us, and we’re going to need all of our gifts to undertake it, particularly the gifts of our theologians. We all do theology every time we try to make sense of, and communicate, our religious experience. However, there are Friends out there who are skilled in the use of theological tools, and there is important and exciting theological work to be done. I hope that the ‘theology think-tank’ that took place as part of the RPGs work is not the last.

At BYM, a repeated phrase was that our diversity is a richness and a strength. This gave rise to a theological question within me: Why is this so? As was pointed out in session, when we speak of our diversity as British Friends, we are really talking about diversity of belief. But even when we look at the diversity of belief amongst British Quakers, how diverse is our religious diversity? In my experience, there is an unspoken Quaker theological mainstream that certain beliefs and behaviours fall outside of. What do we say to a Friend who shares their experience of contacting the dead? How would we react to a Friend who spoke in tongues during worship? I’m sure we can all think of particular beliefs or religious behaviours that would not be easily welcomed at our local meeting. Perhaps our diversity of belief is the freedom to use whatever words we choose to describe a shared experience. But, as Craig Barnett pointed out, in using different words we can be describing quite different experiences, and our differences of belief may be irreconcilable. So the question of diversity of belief is a thorny one, and we need our theologians to help us handle it with care.

I was particularly moved by the presence of our international Quaker visitors. To travel all that way just for our little gathering! It struck me that, when we say ‘our diversity is our strength’, this must include all the ways that Quakerism is expressed throughout the world. It must even include those expressions of Quakerism that make us uncomfortable. For our diversity to truly be our strength we must pay a price, and that price is the need to have deep and difficult conversations with each other, face to face, about what we hold most dear. We must commit to a greater degree of religious literacy, attempting to understand what our Friends mean by the words they use, taking the time to learn one another’s language.

The Spirt of vulnerability

So the work before us is costly, and will require us, as Alex Wildwood shared, to be vulnerable. The word ‘vulnerable’ comes from the Latin vulnerare – ‘to wound’. To be vulnerable is to be wound-able. This work, if we do it right, will be painful.

British Quakers have a difficulty with wounds. I find that we have a very positive self image. We are well-versed in talking about the achievements of Quakers past. The walkway in to Friends House has them inscribed on the paving slabs. It is good that we can draw confidence and hope from the strengths of our tradition, but if we do not balance this by acknowledging our failings, both within our tradition and within ourselves, then we are being guided by a spirit of pride. We can be healed of this spirit through a recognition of our own wounded-ness. During BYM we heard of Quakers’ continuing engagement with issues of power and privilege and sustainability. If the whole Yearly Meeting is to embrace this work then we need to embrace our own complicity in the problems, our own capacity to wound, dare I say our own sinfulness.

The Christian tradition that I inhabit has a central place for wounds. It says that we can’t have Easter Sunday without Good Friday. The crucifixion shows that there is a place for failure, weakness, abandonment and betrayal in God’s story. Even in the New Life, there will never be a time when we can stop being vulnerable with one another. Jesus’ resurrected body still bears the marks of crucifixion. We bring our wounds with us. If in Jesus, God is wound-able, then the Spirit of God is also the Spirit of vulnerability

In describing his own wounded-ness, Paul learned that he could not rely on his own strength. He could only rely on God’s grace, for ‘power is made perfect in weakness’ [2 Cor. 12:9]. Revising our book of discipline will only be a success if we can countenance its failure, if we can acknowledge our own frailty. Quakers have got things wrong before. We aspire to live adventurously, and a story is only an adventure if there is the possibility of danger and defeat.

caravaggio_-_the_incredulity_of_saint_thomas
Being a community of argument

During BYM we were asked ‘How can we get beyond potentially divisive words’? I do not believe that we can ever get beyond divisive words, and to attempt to do so would be a mistake. I hope that in revising our book of discipline we can engage passionately with potentially divisive words in the hope of understanding one another better. A new book of discipline will not solve the difficulties of our diversity of belief, and it will not put an end to the need for difficult conversations.

The temptation to avoid disagreement is strong, and it can be easy for us to say that words don’t matter, that we’re a religion of ‘pure experience’ or that silence negates the need for words. This is to treat silence as an escape.

For two thousand years the Christian Church has been in disagreement over what it means to be a Christian. In many ways, this is what unites the Church. The Church is a community of argument, and what they argue about is how to best use a set of shared materials and practices. It’s like sharing a box of Lego bricks – the bricks being things like the Scriptures, doctrines and rituals – and arguing over how the bricks should fit together. I think it’s fair to say that the Quaker community is also a community of argument. The course of change within the Society has never been smooth, and I don’t think our new book of discipline will be trouble-free either. Inevitably, there will be some who leave the Society as a result of changes that are made, and this should grieve us all.

I hope that British Quakers can fully embrace being a community of argument. This will involve asking what we are in argument over. Perhaps our current disagreements are over what bricks should be in the Quaker box. We may wish to take the most difficult bricks out in order to minimise disagreement, but I don’t think inclusivity lies in ridding ourselves of difficult words or parts of our history. We may also want to just add more bricks to keep everyone happy, but then we need to ask how these bricks can fit into coherent patterns that we all have ownership of.

At BYM there were suggestions of keeping things relevant, and of removing archaic language. I quite like things that are archaic. Sometimes words, concepts and stories stick around for hundreds of years for good reasons. It is often the most contemporary things that quickly become dated (the Street Bible being a good example). This revision is a great opportunity to ask what underused resources from our past might serve us well today. Other communities are asking this question. The academic theological community has recently seen a resurgence of interest in patristics, the first 1000 years of Christianity that Quakers never talk about, using these old insights to address contemporary problems. Stories that are thousands of years old are being used to speak to contemporary issues amongst Quakers, such as Friend Peterson Toscano’s research on transgender people in the Bible. The early Quakers had tools that we could use in understanding our response to issues of privilege and power, as I have written about previously. Can we see the revision of the book of discipline, not as a shedding of an old skin, but as an opportunity to rummage through, add to, and reassemble our Lego collection?


The BYM epistle quotes Isaac Penington: ‘And the end of words is to bring men to the knowledge of things beyond what words can utter.’ The ‘end of words’ does not mean the literal demise of words. Words are not irrelevant. Penington is pointing out that words have a very important purpose. They are indispensable tools,  and I look forward to playing my part in helping my Quaker family use them well.

[Edit: I originally wrote ‘we are certainly not diverse in other ways, such as race or class,’ but have been reminded that to repeat the trope that ‘Quakers are all white and middle class’ ignores the diversity you can find in local Quaker meetings, so I deleted that sentence. When taken as a whole Yearly Meeting, I don’t believe we are as representative as we could be, and we should work to make our structures *inclusive* as well as diverse, ensuring that the white, middle class voice is not the dominant one.]

Advertisements

Thank you to my readers

Dear readers and followers of Jolly Quaker,

2017 has, in one way or another, been a challenging year for me, but blogging continues to be one of my chief joys.

I write this blog for myself. It helps me organise and articulate my thoughts. The act of writing a post and putting it out there is always cathartic. In many ways it’s a spiritual practice.

That said, I really appreciate others taking the time to read and comment on what I write. It’s incredibly affirming, and when people politely disagree with me I enjoy the challenge to articulate my thoughts better, or to reevaluate my own opinions.

I’m hoping that 2018 will yield a bumper crop of Jolly Quaker posts as I continue the Advices and Queries series, which are proving very popular, and are so enjoyable to write.

So thank you for following the blog, re-tweeting my tweets and for reading, liking and commenting on my posts.

As the days in the Northern Hemisphere begin to grow lighter, I wish you a happy Christmas (if marking Christmas is your thing) and a Light-led 2018.

O come, O come, thou Dayspring bright!
Pour on our souls thy healing light;
Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom,
And pierce the shadows of the tomb.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

‘I’m religious, not spiritual’: Postliberalism for Quakers

In this post I’m going to get rather theological. Hopefully in a clear and understandable way. I recently wrote an essay for my theology MA, exploring the modern Western theological movement known as postliberalism. I’d like to have a go at explaining it in a less technical way, whilst also reflecting on what it might have to say to liberal Quakers This 40 year old movement is mainly associated with the academic theologians George Lindbeck, Hans Frei and Stanley Hauerwas, and has proved so influential that it permeates the thinking of popular theologians such as Nadia Bolz-Weber, Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne. It turns out I’ve been breathing the air of postliberalism for quite some time – New Monasticism could be thought of as a postliberal off-shoot.

Already this might sound quite heavy, but I’m going to try and explain it as plainly as I can.

What is liberalism?

Before getting to postliberalism (meaning after liberalism), it’s worth spending time on what we mean by liberalism. I suspect most of us use it when talking about politics or social attitudes. Modern British Quakers are sometimes described as liberal Quakers.

In theological terms, liberalism is a Western Protestant movement beginning in the 19th Century, having its roots in the thinking of German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, sometimes called the ‘Father of modern liberal theology.’

Liberal theology is concerned with taking the discoveries of science and philosophy – what might be called ‘extra-theological sources‘ – and reforming and re-shaping Christian theology in the light of these discoveries.

Liberal theology is also concerned with universals, particularly universal religious experience. This is the idea that religious experience is common to all people, across all cultures. It sees this as:

  • the source of religious truth – (we know something is religiously true if it conforms to our inward religious experience),
  • the heart of religious practice – (the ceremony and rituals are merely ‘window dressing’) – and
  • the basis of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue – (all religions are essentially the same, as they all have this universal religious experience at their core).

william_blake_all_religions_a_are_one_victoria_and_albert_museum

What is postliberalism?

One of postliberalism’s important features is its criticism of the liberal idea of universal religious experience. Postliberalism raises the following objections:

  • Quite simply, it is impossible to prove that there is a universal religious experience that all people share across all religious traditions.
  • As a basis of religious truth, it appears to make truth relative. If things are only true because they chime with our inner experience, what happens when two people have different inner experiences? If one thing is ‘true’ for one person, and differently ‘true’ for another, is it meaningful to speak of truth at all? And how do we know we can trust our inner experiences anyway?
  • Postliberalism also suggests that universal religious experience is not at the heart of religious practice, because discoveries in anthropology and sociology suggest that it is religious practice that shapes religious experience. The words we say, the images we use, the stories we tell, the ceremonies we perform and the songs we sing – these shape the religious experience that we have. Different religious traditions produce different religious experiences.
  • Therefore, we can’t make universal religious experience the basis of ecumenical dialogue. Not only do all religions look different in their manner of worship (and therefore the religious experience that occurs) but religions differ in their understanding of ‘salvation’. Their goals, their destinations, are different. Postliberalism says our basis for inter-religious dialogue should not be ‘how are you like me?’, rather there should be a true recognition of difference. Postliberalism questions the idea of the ‘anonymous Christian’ (Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner’s reasoning for how good non-Christians might be saved), saying ‘how do we know that Christians aren’t ‘anonymous Buddhists’? Postliberalism asks ‘how can we make peace with each other, without erasing our differences?’

Because of this rejection of universal experience, postliberalism focuses on religious specificity – the things that make a particular religious tradition what it is. Therefore, for Christianity, there’s an increased focus on the Bible. Rather than seeing scripture through the lens of ‘extra-theological sources’ such as philosophy and science, there is a focus on seeing the world through the lens of scripture. There is also a focus on how religious language shapes our experience, and how religion itself is like a language. To join a particular religious tradition is to learn its particular language, and be shaped and transformed by it.

Postliberal Quakerism?

So what challenge does postliberalism present to liberal Quakers? I would say my description of theological liberalism ticks many Quaker boxes. This isn’t surprising, as the roots of liberal Quakerism are in Rufus Jones (1863-1948), who himself was indebted to both Schleiermacher and William James (1842-1910) and his The Varieties of Religious Experience).

In contemporary British Quakerism I encounter a strong belief in universal religious experience which transcends religious tradition, and the idea that Quaker worship represents a stripping away of ‘window dressing’ to get to this core experience. Sometimes I come across the idea that Quakerism itself heralds a ‘universal’ religion – what I’d call Quaker exceptionalism. The idea that ‘George Fox only spoke in Christian terms because of the culture he was born into’ is a product of this thinking (as if Fox can be understood apart from his Christianity, or Jesus from his Judaism for that matter!), as is the idea that there are people out there who are Quakers without knowing it.

A postliberal approach provides a check on Quaker exceptionalism, and draws our attention to the specificity of the Quaker tradition. Quaker worship is not a blank canvas or empty container, but a form of worship that shapes the experience we have within it. Becoming a Quaker involves learning to ‘speak Quaker’, which in turn involves learning the tradition and its stories. From a postliberal perspective, attempts to make Quakerism more ‘universal’ – such as weeding out specific Quaker language or placing copies of the ‘World Religions Bible’ on meeting house tables – are misguided. A robust and vital Quakerism is one that has a healthy relationship with its own tradition, and does not seek to cast it off.

Some words from the wise Nadia Bolz-Weber to finish:

I think it’s interesting people dismiss the being “spiritual but not religious” thing. My business card for the church says, “We’re religious but not spiritual.” That yearning that people have is for something that’s more than 20 minutes old. I think people want to be connected to something that’s more than a whim… Since the age of progress, new is better, right? Now we go, “Wait a minute — that’s not always true.” When new is always better, we’re not tethered to anything. I think I see a longing in people to be tethered to something, and I like to say that you have to be really deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity.


Note: The term postliberalism was coined in George Lindbeck’s book The Nature of Doctrine (1984).

Arms fairs, Ortolans and the Apocalypse

Last week I was present at the ‘No Faith in War’ day, part of the ‘Stop the Arms Fair‘ week of action. Here are my reflections on what I witnessed.
The ortolan is a small bird, considered in some countries to be a delicacy. It is kept in darkness, or perhaps blinded, causing it to gorge itself on grain. It is then drowned in brandy and roasted. When the ortolan is eaten, a veil is placed over the diner’s face and plate. The act of eating is hidden, either to preserve the dignity of the eater as they spit out the creature’s tiny bones, or, as some say, to hide such a cruel and shameful meal from the sight of God.
When we know our actions are wrong, we want to keep them hidden.

DSEI (Defence & Security Equipment International) is taking place in London’s Docklands this week. Despite being one of the world’s largest arms fairs, it aims to keep out of the public eye. According to Campaign Against the Arms Trade: ‘DSEI takes place in secret, behind heavily protected security fences and police lines – designed to allow arms dealers to trade their wares unhindered by transparency or public protest – and is subsidised by the UK taxpayer.’
Within the Biblical narrative there is a recurring theme – what is done in secret will come to light. In my Quaker tradition, we affirm that the Light of God shows us our darkness, bringing us to new life. Jesus said that
Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. [Luke 12:2-3]
In the Book of Revelation, God brings everything into the open by leaving nowhere to hide. The sky is torn away and the mountains are levelled:
Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” [Rev 6:12-17]

This is an apocalyptic moment, a moment of revelation. The word apocalypse means to remove the veil, showing things as they really are. The apocalypse is not about destruction, but about justice. To tear away the napkin that hides the gourmand crunching down on an ortolan is an apocalyptic act.
The ‘Shut Down DSEI’ week of action is also an apocalyptic event. It’s an attempt to reveal to the world the horror of what is occurring within the Excel Centre. Through creative campaigning – such as street theatre, art exhibitions, dancing and Daleks – and direct action – such as blocking the entrances to the exhibition centre – activists tear away the veil of secrecy and respectability and expose DSEI for what it is.

I took part in a Quaker meeting for worship at one of the entrances. In the middle of the silent circle, a Quaker was arrested by the police for obstructing the road. A priest placed a row of Bibles on the tarmac, which the police later removed. With the eyes of the worshippers on them, as well as many cameras, the police treated the trespassing Friend with great respect. Even the Bibles were picked up carefully and respectfully. For me, this was a moment of revelation – where I stood, a book was being picked up with such reverence it might have been a living thing, while across the street, preparations were being made to sell technologies destined to blow fragile bodies apart.
I am so grateful to all those who’ve worked on this campaign, and those who’ve put themselves in the way. DSEI is set to return in 2019, and I plan to be there to witness its unveiling.

Be a God-Bearer: A Quaker Mariology

Greenbelt, is a festival of arts, justice and faith that takes place at Boughton House near Kettering in the Midlands of England. It’s become almost an annual pilgrimage for me, and this year, helped by the glorious weather, it has refreshed and inspired me in unexpected ways.

One of the highlights of the festival was a talk by Teresa Forcades i Vila, a Benedictine nun from Catalonia, Spain. She spoke without notes, for about 45 minutes, quoting Hannah Arendt, Thomas Aquinas, Simone Weil, and a host of other philosophers and theologians, addressing the political climate in Europe today. I can’t sum up the content of her talk in one blog post, but I would like to focus on one particular point she made, that central to the work of the 21st century church will be the figure of Mary, the Mother of God.

Quakers, Catholics, Mary and Me

For a British Quaker, this might sound just too Catholic. In the 17th Century, the Puritans despised Catholics and Quakers alike, often accusing Quakers of being Jesuits in disguise, but that didn’t mean the first Quakers had any sense of solidarity with their Catholic sisters and brothers. A strong anti-Catholic streak runs through early Quaker writings, and it’s not unusual to come across a subtle anti-Catholic sentiment amongst contemporary British Quakers. As an atheist, then Quaker teenager, I was virulently anti-Catholic, associating it with excess and superstition.

My encounters with Catholics since then (both living and dead) have altered that view dramatically. Roman Catholicism, like any institution, has its problems, blind spots and systemic evil, but in reading the writings of Dorothy Day, and meeting the nuns working with refugees and asylum seekers in Birmingham, I’ve witnessed hearts that beat for justice far stronger than my own.

I think I’m also more open to Mary as a result. I find her a fascinating and enigmatic figure. She is a young women who has angelic visions and submits completely to God. She makes fiery prophetic pronouncements. She gives birth in squalor, and becomes a refugee fleeing state violence. She struggles to understand her son’s prophetic witness, but is there at the foot of the cross as he dies. She lives to see his resurrection, and the birth of the church. In the book of Revelation she is portrayed as ‘a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’.

Mary the God-Bearer

Mariology is the study of Mary, as Christology is the study of Christ. Like any branch of theology, Mariology has its own terminology and complicated metaphysical debates. One such debate resulted in Mary being given the title Theotokos – meaning ‘God-bearer’. The term is used in the Eastern Church, and in Eastern iconography Mary is often represented as the unburnt bush encountered by Moses. Like the bush, Mary contained God but was not consumed.

8509410242_fc56897e7f_b

At Greenbelt, Sr Teresa explained how the relationship between God and Mary is the relationship that God wishes to have with us all. God cannot impose Her will on us from the outside. God will never enact martial law, and rule us in an authoritarian manner. That would make God a tyrant. God can only enter our individual and communal lives through our own freely given cooperation. God could only become enfleshed in Jesus because Mary freely said ‘Yes’.

Sr Teresa commented that, in Catholicism, the metaphor of being ‘channels of grace’ is often used. This reminded me of a oft-quoted passage from Quaker Faith and Practice about us being ‘God’s plumbers‘. But Sr Teresa feels these metaphors of being some sort of vessel or conduit do not fully communicate what it means to live an incarnational life. Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly wrote that ‘We cannot look upon the face of God and live, live as our old selves’. A channel is not transformed by what passes through it.

Sr Teresa suggests that, rather than just being passive plumbing, our calling is more visceral, bloody, painful and joyful. In Mary we see what we too are invited to become: God-bearers. We are called to a spiritual conception, pregnancy, labour and birth, to enflesh God in the world and be irrevocably changed by the experience.

3965607508_664605525f_o

A Quaker Mariology

The early Quakers knew all about being filled with God without being consumed. They took Paul at his word that ‘It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ This sense of Christ coming to birth in them has been called ‘celestial inhabitation.’  For early Quaker leader James Nayler, Jesus was enfleshed in him to the extent that he couldn’t tell where he ended and Christ began.

These were controversial claims that brought great persecution, and later generations of Quakers toned down such language, but in the Quaker tradition we have the bold claim that Christ is present amongst us, and that God works Her purposes thorough our weak and mortal bodies. This theology has been famously expressed in ‘The presence in the midst’, a painting of a Quaker meeting with a spiritual Jesus leading the worship.

I propose that we add another image to our visual theology, the image of Mary as Theotokos. Mary offers a model of Quaker discipleship – faithful, prayerful and open to the leadings of God. She captures the best of the Quaker tradition: She demonstrates the non-coercive workings of the Divine; in a patriarchal world she is a strong, prophetic women, a champion of the poor and downtrodden whilst herself a refugee. Like James Nayler, she knows that a life with God is not a life without grief, that bearing God leads to pain as well as glory. Also, as a man I have the opportunity to be challenged by female religious imagery.

I believe the God that is Love invites us to be God-bearers, to enflesh the Word in the world. Can we say with Mary: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’?

theotokos_image

Re-Membering Scripture: a footnote to the 2017 George Gorman Lecture

The George Gorman Lecture is given at the Yearly Meeting Gatherings of Quakers in Britain by a younger Friend. Tim Gee delivered the 2017 Gorman Lecture – ‘Movement Building from Stillness’ – on Wednesday 2 August.

I would like to congratulate Tim on his excellent, engaging and thought provoking lecture. He presented hard truths in a loving and generous spirit. He covers the intimate connection between faith, our Quaker structures and activism; how we can work with others for change; the right marriage of power and love; making our meetings truly inclusive; the challenges of being privileged people in the 21st century and the dangers of relying too heavily on our past status as a marginalised group. I’m really grateful for his words. If you haven’t heard it, I highly recommend you check it out.

There is one point Tim made that I would like to work with, as a footnote to his lecture. I have been minded to write about this particular topic before, and now seems an excellent opportunity.

By their books shall ye know them…

Tim ends his lecture with a number of suggestions, one of which is that – in order to emphasise our openness to new Light, and to show that everyone is welcome at a Quaker meeting – every meeting would consider having a ‘World Religions Bible‘ on the table during worship. This book is a collection of religious writings from a variety of traditions rendered in modern english. I’d not come across it before, and at first glance it seems a very cool book. I thoroughly support the study of other faiths and their scriptures, and anything that encourages religious literacy and respect for other traditions gets my ‘hope so’. It also looks like a great resource for personal devotional practice.

Our lack of overt religious symbols can make it easy to see Quakerism as a blank canvas, a sort of religious ‘neutral-zone’. However, although we don’t have candle sticks or stained glass, our way of worship still communicates important aspects of the Quaker story, of Quaker theology. The plainness of our worship space reflects the inward simplicity we seek in order to hear the ‘still small voice’. Our seating arrangement communicates the equal worth of all present. The books we choose to put on the table communicate something about the corporate identity of Quakerism. Quaker Faith & Practice communicates the collected experience of British Quakerism, and the Bible speaks of our rootedness in (and continuing dialogue with) the Christian tradition.

Tim suggests that by adding ‘A World Religions Bible’ to the table this would emphasise our commitment to be open to ‘new light’ from whatever source it comes and show that everyone is welcome. I agree with the sentiment, but disagree with the method. I suggest that:

  1. being religiously specific and welcoming to all are not mutually exclusive (e.g. you can be Jewish and welcome Christians into your worship without putting a copy of the Christian Bible next to the Torah), and
  2. to place non-Christian texts on our table is problematic for several reasons. (And just to be clear, none of those reasons is ‘non-Christians are wrong/not as good’ etc. – I stand by the Quaker understanding of the Spirit being poured out on all.)

I think the first point probably deserves a whole blog post to itself – and Friend Ben has written brilliantly about this already – so I’m going to focus on the second point.

61ogvgt-8dl-_sx322_bo1204203200_

Why might placing non-Christian religious texts on the meeting table be problematic?

Does it erase difference?: Having a variety of religious texts (either separately or as a compilation) together on a table may be making claims about the compatibility of these texts that is not true. Different religions may have things in common, but they also make different claims. Such an approach may fail to honour the distinctiveness of each tradition. The suggestion that ‘all religions are the same really’ may even work against an authentic religious literacy. Religious scripture is not just defined by the words on the page, but in how it is used. For some Muslims, the Quran must be kept physically separate from other books in the house. In Judaism, the Torah has a very special role within worship and is treated in many ways like a person. The Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Hebrew Bible contain the same texts, but they are arranged differently and perform very different functions in each tradition. Perhaps a better approach would be for a meeting to engage in real, face-to-face inter-faith dialogue, rather than make a gesture that presents too simplistic a view of world faiths.

Is it cultural misappropriation?: Some Christian churches choose to practice a passover seder on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday). I’ve recently become persuaded that this is an example of cultural misappropriation. The passover meal doesn’t belong to Christians. We don’t have the right to perform it. Christians already have their own wonderful Maundy Thursday ritual – communal foot washing. This has led me to ask ‘what scriptures belong to Quakers?’ A Western, postmodern, consumerist (and usually white) approach is to say ‘if I can pay for it, it’s mine!’ With this attitude we can fill our homes with Native American dream catchers and Buddhist prayer bowls, wear bindis on our foreheads and build a sweat lodge in our back gardens. But do these things really belong to us? There are many individual Quakers in Britain who authentically draw on non-Christian sources in their religious lives, but for Quakers as a corporate body the only scriptures that belong to us are the Old and New Testaments. We cannot lay claim to any others. Before we place other religious texts on our table, we need to discern our right to do so.

Is it a form of escapism?: I believe that cultural misappropriation in the West springs in part from shame at our own cultural roots. For all its achievements, we can’t ignore the fact that Britain is built on foundation stones of colonialism, racism, slavery, oppression and empire. The temptation to shake off this heritage is strong – to reject Christianity and the Bible as a Western instrument of oppression and ally ourselves with the innocent ‘other’. If we fill our table with a multitude of religious texts, are we trying to escape our own history? Having privilege allows us to benefit from being European/white etc., but distance ourselves from these roots when it suits us. This desire to escape can be heard in John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, which naively suggests that if we could just cast off the trappings of religion and culture, we’d all be able to get along. As much as we may wish to, we cannot escape into a non-existent ‘universal religion’, into an illusory postmodern freedom from history. We have to face and reconcile ourselves with our own inheritance.

Re-Membering Scripture

In Frances E. Kendall’s book on white privilege, she writes of the need to ‘re-member’. As a white woman there are parts of herself she tried forget. In ignoring her own white privilege, by distancing herself from her white Southern family, she had cut off a part of herself. The only way to heal her own racism was to re-attach the amputated limb – to re-member. This re-membering is painful, but necessary if we are to authentically work towards right relationship between all peoples.

As Quakers, we cannot examine our own privilege whilst we think of ourselves as somehow the vanguard of a ‘universal religion’ that encompasses all faiths. To seek new Light does not mean a continues journey away from Christianity. Whether we see it as a glorious heritage or as unsavoury baggage, we can’t escape our Christian roots. We have to re-member our own scriptures, as painful as that might be.

In this years George Gorman Lecture, we have an excellent example in Friend Tim. He speaks of his excitement at reading the Gospels with fresh eyes. He speaks of Jesus’ turning of the tables, and the sermon on the mount in ways that communicate the Spirit’s calling to British Quakers in 2017. He is re-membering scripture for us!

The stories are old and difficult, but they are our stories, and if we take the time to get to know them they will have startlingly new messages for us. The river of the Spirit continues to flow strongly through them. As Dorothy discovered on returning from Oz, our heart’s desire can still be found in our own back yard. New light can be found in old stories.

Quakers and White privilege: the seed of the serpent?

Finding doctrines that work

Doctrine is one of those words that you might not associate with liberal Quakerism. We might look at doctrinal debates of the past – such as whether the Son is of the same substance as the Father, or of a similar substance (the 4th Century Arian controversy), or whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, or from the Father and the Son (the 11th Century filioque controversy) – and conclude that doctrine (from a Quaker point of view) is about obscure, abstract and divisive word games that have no real bearing on our day-to-day lives. This is part of the long tradition of Quaker-suspicion of theology.

I don’t believe we can write off doctrine altogether. In its broadest sense, doctrine is about what is taught and transmitted within a religious community, a crystallisation of a group’s religious understanding. In this sense, Quaker Faith and Practice could be considered a doctrinal text. In the first Advice and Query we find a doctrinal statement that the ‘promptings of love and truth in [our] hearts… [are] the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.’

One thing that makes for a good doctrine is that it proves a useful tool for making sense of the world we live in and experience. Good doctrine works.

An early and highly influential formal statement of Quaker doctrine can be found in Robert Barclay’s An Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1678). These are not dry, abstract theories, but a vivid web of images and concepts that made sense of the first Quakers’ experience. These were doctrines that worked. Barclay pays a lot of attention to discrediting predestination (the belief that only some are saved) and imputed original sin (the belief that we inherit the guilt of Adam and Eve from birth). These beliefs were jettisoned because they didn’t work. They resulted in a state of religious anxiety and despair. The doctrines that replaced them – that we were not born guilty, salvation was possible for all, and a perfect relationship with God was possible before death – worked because they corresponded to the early Quaker experience of hope, liberation and intimate communion with the Spirit of Christ.

I recently wrote about a theology of evil that Quakers might find useful, and this has got me thinking about how we might find a useful way to talk about sin. I wrote last year how churches less versed in the language of sin might find it harder to address their own faults, particularly in relation to issues around privilege. Do we have a doctrine of sin available to us that could prove a helpful tool? I decided to start with Barclay and see what he had to say. I’ll give an outline of Barclay’s view of sin and salvation (soteriology in theological jargon) and then show how it might be useful in examining issues of privilege, using white privilege as an example.

 

Barclay on sin, justification and perfection

Barclay presents us with the image of two seeds, which we all have within us:

  • First there is the seed of God which God has placed within all people, the law that God has written on our hearts. [It is not a ‘piece of God’, for God cannot be divided, nor is it a natural capacity we have. It is that through which God works upon us inwardly. It is not our reason, nor is it our conscience, for these cannot by themselves lead us into Truth. Only when they are purified and illuminated by the Light can they be reliable guides.]
  • Then there is the seed of the serpent, which we have inherited from Adam. This is our weakness of will, and our inability to do good by our own strength. We inherit Adam’s weakness but not his guilt. We become bound to this seed when we make the choice Adam made. [Barclay writes of this seed being ‘natural’, but if we consider that only what God has created is ‘natural’, then the seed of the serpent must be ‘unnatural’ as it is not an intended part of the creation.]

We need to be liberated from the seed of the serpent, and united with the seed of God. We cannot do this ourselves. Indeed, we may be blind to our own bondage.

This process of liberation begins when the seed of God calls us to submit to it, to allow it to grow in us. This call is to share in the spiritual, inward crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, so that Christ may live and bear fruit in us. This inward call is the true preaching of the Gospel.

We do not choose the moment when this occurs – we must wait for the ‘day of the Lord’ or ‘day of visitation’, but once we are presented with that choice we can submit to the Light, or reject it.

If we reject it, then our hearts may be hardened to the extent that we can no longer submit to the Light:

…So every man, during the day of his visitation, is shined upon by the sun of righteousness, and capable of being influenced by it, so as to send forth good fruit, and a good savour, and to be melted by it; but when he hath sinned out his day, then the same sun hardeneth him, as it doth the clay, and makes his wickedness more to appear and putrefy, and send forth an evil savour.

Our liberation from the seed of the serpent is made possible by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in history. However, knowledge of this outward history, of the historical crucifixion and resurrection, is not required in order to experience the inward, spiritual crucifixion and resurrection necessary in order to become united to the seed of God. You can know the mystery without knowing the history.

When we submit to the Light, to the seed of God, we experience a spiritual birth and Christ is formed in us.

This work of liberation is twofold– it involves what Christ did for us in the historical crucifixion (redemption), and what Christ does in us through our spiritual crucifixion (sanctification). The first makes the second possible. Christ’s work ‘roots out the evil seed’, releasing us from slavery and clearing the way for the fruit of Christ to grow in us. And importantly, you can’t partake of the first without partaking of the second. Redemption is evidenced in a transformed life. This is no ‘cheap grace’ where you claim salvation but do not change. Redemption (being in right relationship with God) and sanctification (a holy, transformed way of living) are inseparable. Being justified means living a just life.

Once justified, we become a conduit for the good works of the Spirit. We cannot claim these good works as our own.

We enter into a state of perfection. Here perfection is not static, but refers to a perfection of relationship. It is a restored relationship of obedience to God as in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Importantly there is always room to grow in goodness: ‘a child hath a perfect body as well as a man, though it daily grow more and more.’

It’s possible to turn away from this perfect relationship if we choose. Therefore living in perfection requires hard work and perseverance.

White privilege – the seed of the serpent?

From my reading on the subject, it feels like the process of a white person coming to terms with their white privilege maps on quite well to the process of salvation Barclay describes. It could possibly be applied to other types of privilege as well. Maybe this is one way in which Barclay’s soteriological doctrine can work for 21st Century Friends. [For a quick intro to white privilege, see this buzzfeed article and the above video of ‘the doll test‘.]

Inheriting the seed of the serpent: We inherit white privilege through being born into a society that privileges people with white skin, which some call a system of white supremacy. Importantly, we shouldn’t feel guilty about this. We don’t inherit the guilt of our predecessors. However, we do inherit the privileges that come with our whiteness, and the many unconscious behaviours we have which maintain that privilege. We are blind to our own privilege until we encounter what it is like to walk in less privileged shoes. This is not something we can do by ourselves, we need to truly listen and open ourselves up to the experience of others.

The ‘Day of the Lord’: The moment when ‘the lights are turned on’ may be a traumatic experience, and may fill us with distressing, complex emotions. Realising our part in an oppressive system can be incredibly painful. It is something we may never be ‘ready’ for. If we refuse to listen to the experiences of the other, if we refuse to examine our own privileges, the opportunity to see things from another point of view may pass. As with Pharaoh, the more privilege we have, and the tighter our hold is on our privilege, the harder our hearts may become.

The history and the mystery: We can know about white privilege in a factual way, but this is also tough emotional work. It is heart-work as well as head-work. The history of Jesus is of a man seemingly crushed by a system of oppressive violence, but we may remain unchanged by it unless we know that mystery inwardly. Having said that, knowing the history of white supremacy is of vital importance if we are to truly see how deep this goes. Maybe this is were we diverge from Barclay and the map falters – we need to know the history even if we don’t know the mystery!

A process of perfection: Once this work of examining our privilege begins, it is an ongoing process of liberation and transformation. Once you start to see systemic oppression, you can’t un-see it. We don’t do this work to ‘help others’ or in order to see ourselves as ‘good people’. This is first and foremost about our own transformation. This is about entering into a continuing relationship of open, honest listening to the Holy Spirit speaking through the voices of the oppressed ‘other’, a relationship that requires continuous tenderness, pain and humility. Then we can use our privilege to dismantle the very system that gave it to us in the first place, casting our unearned crowns at the feet of Jesus in all humility.

This is just one attempt at finding the doctrinal resources within our Quaker tradition to help us talk about privilege. I’m sure there are many other ways of approaching the issue. For a fuller account of white privilege, read Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race by Frances E. Kendall (Routledge, 2013).